The video game designer felt betrayed.  She thought, indeed, knew, that she had deserved the promotion, only to be told that it would not be forthcoming, at least not for her.  She had done all the right things, worked on the projects that were assigned to her, accepted additional assignments, went out of her way to be helpful to her peers working on other projects.  The senior leaders of her department had only good things to say to her and had seemed supportive of her promotion.  But the promotion did not happen.  She was upset, then furious. She believed that the senior leaders had lied to her, that they had not done enough pushing back against leaders from other departments who were advocating for their own people to advance in the firm.  She was distraught.  She started putting together her resume, letting her network know that she would soon be ready to leave what had become a corrupt, overly political firm that did not value talent and loyalty.

This story is, unfortunately, all too common.  But the story is also flawed. It is too simple, a sign that something is awry.  In this telling, the video game designer is the Protagonist.  She is the heroic figure, able and loyal, on her heroic journey, moving through the thickets, helping others less strong along the way.  And then she is the wounded victim, betrayed by those that she had trusted, Antagonists whose wickedness left her abandoned.  Either role—hero, victim—leaves her at the center of the story, exerting force in the world or struggling to survive against those who would have her fail. 

We must learn to be suspicious of stories in which we are—and only are—the Protagonists.  The truth of our circumstances is always more complex.  It is not only others who act upon us in the world; we also act upon ourselves.  It is very often the case that we are both Protagonist and Antagonist, at the same time. We get in our own way, enacting patterns of thought and action that undermine our own heroic journeys, and victimize ourselves.  This is not a particularly new idea.  What is useful to consider—and too many of us don’t—is how and why we protect ourselves from applying this knowledge to ourselves.  We keep ourselves in the dark about ourselves, shining the light only upon that which maintains the illusion of the pure Protagonist.  The rest, as the analyst Carl Jung would say, remains in the shadows.

The video game designer shone the light only on what was around her.  She saw the thickets in which she was trapped, how her arms were scratched and bleeding, her clothing torn.  She looked back and saw the path that she had cleared, all the progress that she had made.  Yet there was much on which she did not turn her light, and of which she thus remained unaware.  The designer had been, in fact, slow in completing her work, to the frustration of others.  She had fallen behind her peers.  Her manager had given her extra time, had reduced the number of projects for which she was responsible, and yet the production remained below what was needed.  She was given feedback that suggested that she was not keeping pace.  There had been no salary increases, no bonuses for several years.  These were signs, among others.  But she chose not to see those signs.  And in so doing, she chose not to shine the light upon herself, and see how she was, in some ways, the Antagonist to herself.

The video game designer held tightly to her story, which contained some but not all parts of the reality of how she had gotten to her difficult point in her journey.  And holding tightly to her story meant severely limiting any information that might result in becoming aware of what she did not want to know or acknowledge about herself.  So she shut herself off from contact with several of the senior leaders, who sought her out to provide support and help her think through what had happened and what could happen in the future.  These were supporters, who cared about her.  But she avoided them.  More to the point, she chose to see them as Antagonists.  This served a very particular function, enabling her not to have to see how she herself got in her own way.  She unconsciously split off the Antagonist within, and projected onto others that part of herself that she was unable or unwilling to acknowledge. 

There are, of course, several problems with this.  Relationships that might otherwise offer support, feedback, and growth are diminished rather than developed.  A promising career is sidetracked.  And, most important, the erstwhile Protagonist is almost guaranteed to repeat the process by which she gets in her own way, blames others, fails, and then refuses to see and take responsibility for her feelings, behaviors, and consequences.  Her own development as an adult—a member of our species defined mostly by the capacity to take responsibility for his or her actions, experiences, and outcomes—remains stunted, and will continue to be so.

The Ostrich Effect is maintained by the simplicity of stories that reduces the complexity of people.  Such stories propagate the illusion that individuals are just one thing—good or bad, smart or dumb, kind or cruel.  The more difficult reality is that each of us contains within us all polarities. We are both Protagonist and Antagonist, in the stories of our selves.  It is by looking closely at how the parts of our selves interact that we can arrive at greater insights about those selves, and this create healthier relationships and better outcomes for ourselves and the organizations and communities on whose behalf we struggle.

About the Author

Bill Kahn, Ph.D.

Bill Kahn, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist at Boston University's School of Management who researches the sources of stubborn problems in work relationships, groups and organizations.

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